Herodotus and the Scythians

The accounts of Scythia in Herodotus’ The Histories are organized in concurrence with the timeline of the Persian invasion of Scythia, led by King Darius, where as the invasion progresses Herodotus repeatedly digresses about the history of Scythia until the Persians and Scythians meet, at which point the apparent essence of the accounts of Scythia in The Histories, the Persian invasion, is concluded. Although Herodotus’ description of Scythia seems to be a byproduct of the accounts of King Darius, it is nonetheless thorough.

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Along with detailed descriptions of the origins of Scythia, as well as its diverse populace, Herodotus seems determined to write extensively on the geography of Scythia. Concerning the veracity of Herodotus’ accounts on Scythia, there is no effort to provide one point of view as fact, but instead he provides many possibilities and then gives input on which he believes to be most accurate. Because of this, there is little evidence supporting Herodotus having a Greek anti-”barbarian” bias. In fact, as Herodotus is considered by many to be the “proto-historian”, his work is not easily weighed against the efforts of those that followed.

Rather, the stories Herodotus relates weaves a fuller more comprehensive picture of the time than later histories. This unschooled effort should not be construed to suggest a bias, but a rich and new writing style undiluted by the socratic method to follow in later years. Herodotus describes three possibilities for the origin of the Scythian nation. The first possibility described is the position of Scythian people who state that, “theirs is the youngest of all nations. ”? As claimed by the Scythians, the first man born on Scythian soil was descendant from the daughter of the Borysthenes River and Zeus.

This man, Targitaos, had three sons whose descendants were that of the first three tribes of Scythia. Herodotus clearly states he does not see much merit in this claim, but acknowledges that this is what the Scythians believe, “… though that does not sound credible to me. Nevertheless, that is their claim. ”? Because Herodotus acknowledges the position of the Scythians and does so politely, the idea that he has an anti-”Barbarian” bias is further diminished. His commentary disregarding the Scythian claims should not be construed as a bias, because it is not forced upon the reader.

It is simply an his opinion that is completely up for discussion. This same idea applies to the next possibility of the origin of Scythia, because, although Herodotus does not necessarily believe it, he leaves open for discussion. The second possibility for the origin of Scythia described by Herodotus is according to the Hellenes. The Hellenes believed that Herakles, or Hercules, came to the land of Scythia before the Scythians and as he was heading through the land he came upon a woman who was half woman and half serpent.

This woman and Herakles had three sons together and, at the request of Herakles, when they became men any of the three who could draw Herakles’ bow and wear his belt would stay in the future land of Scythia, whereas any of the three who could not do these things must leave.? The youngest of the sons, Scythes, was the only one who achieved this task and, “the descendants of Scythes son of Herakles have succeeded ever since to the kingship of the Scythians. ” ? The third possibility of the origin of the Scythian nation discussed in The Histories is the one preferred by Herodotus.

It says that the Scythians were originally from Asia, but because of conflict with other Asian inhabitants they left Asia and settled in was what to become Scythia. At that time Scythia is said to have been inhabited by Cimmerians, but when the Cimmerians learned of the approach of the large Scythian army they either fled or killed themselves. Herodotus believes this to be the most viable possibility of Scythian origin because there is remnants of Cimmerian ruins within Scythia.?

After discussing the origin of the Scythian nation, Herodotus goes on to discuss the differences in the people who inhabit Scythia, based on there region. According to Herodotus the easternmost Scythians, know as the Greek Scythians, practice the same basic tenants of Scythian culture besides the fact that they grow grain, onion, garlic, lentils, and millet for sustenance. To the northeast of the Greek Scythians are the Scythian plowmen who, “grow grain not for their own consumption, but for sale. ? East of the plowmen are the Scythian farmers and southeast of the farmers are the Scythian nomads. The nomads do not farm, but instead live a nomadic lifestyle of hunting. Further east, across the Gerros River are the Royal Scythians. The Royal Scythians are considered to be the most noble of the Scythians and, “consider the rest of the Scythians their slaves. ”? To the north of the Scythians, from west to east, are Neurians, the Maneaters, and the Black Cloaks.?

Although Herodotus spends a lot of time discussing the different peoples of Scythia, most of the information given is in the form of stories or very detailed arbitrary aspects of Scythian culture, which does not have a central theme. One aspect of Herodotus’ accounts of Scythia that does have a central theme and is extensively discussed is the geography of Scythia and more specifically, the rivers of Scythia. It is clear that Herodotus was impressed by the rivers of Scythia and was eager to convey information about these rivers to his readers.

He discusses each river that flows through Scythia territory, from west to east and credits the rivers for being the most important natural resources of the Scythians.? It is hard to say what information Herodotus deemed most important to know about the Scythians. Discussion on the customs of the Scythians is vast, but largely arbitrary, while remarkable emphasis is placed on the geographical tenants of the area of Scythia. Though, throughout Herodotus’ accounts of Scythia one aspect is largely consistent and that is his determination to provide multiple points of view regardless of the source.

There is no real attempt to provide evidence on the veracity of what is being said, besides his commentary, but there is also no bias. Notes 1. Herodotus, “The Histories,” in Landmark Herodotus, ed. Robert B. Strassler (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 282. 2. Herodotus, 282. 3. Herodotus, 284-285. 4. Herodotus, 285. 5. Herodotus, 286-287. 6. Herodotus, 289. 7. Herodotus, 291. 8. Herodotus, 298. 9. Herodotus, 301-306. Bibliography Herodotus. “The Histories. ” In Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert B. Strassler, 282-306. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.


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